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Linguistics professor: “Race is at the center of it all”

The Covid-19 pandemic has put racial debates in the US on top of the agenda, according to linguistics professor Lourdes Ortega.

Three young girls marching in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Denver, CO

"Now we must confront racial issues as a reality," says Lourdes Ortega. (Photo: Thomas Elliott from Alma, USA / CC0)

“The pandemic has made the hurtful legacy of white supremacy undeniable,” says Lourdes Ortega, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

“White supremacy is a very scary term, but it has always existed in the world. It structures all our institutions, all our policies, our daily lives, our relationships to others. The pandemic has made this even more clear,” she says.

On September 23rd, 2020, Ortega will deliver the Einar Haugen Lecture at the University of Oslo, Norway. There she will encourage fellow researchers to change their work:

“For a long time, researchers working on linguistic, cognitive, and educational questions have been able to exclude race from their research. Now we must confront racial issues as a reality.”

Difficult for parents

Einar Haugen Lecture 2020

Lourdes Ortega will deliver the lecture “Language Learning in a Post-COVID World,” on September 23, 15:15–17:00 (CET). 

In the U.S., the pandemic has proven to disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic communities compared to White Americans. For example, among communities of color one often finds higher rates of underlying health conditions, lower average income, and fewer people who can afford health insurance, according to a study from Kaiser Family Foundation.

Furthermore, more people from these historically minoritized groups have essential occupations and no opportunity to telework, according to The Economic Policy Institute

The ongoing closure of schools and forced homeschooling in the U.S. have demonstrated large differences among ethnic groups, Ortega claims.

“Parents are faced with the task of mediating their children’s education. But many parents who do not know the technology well or do not speak the language of the school well may find it very hard to facilitate their children’s learning.”

Connectivity gap

In many low-income homes, all members of a family share one computer. Some schools have been able to give laptops to their pupils, only to be faced with another challenge: the lack of good Internet access. The non-profit organisation The Pew Charitable Trusts and many others note that this connectivity gap within the United States has become a major obstacle for equitable access to education during the pandemic.

“In the U.S we easily imagine that everyone has Internet and mobile technology, but there are huge gaps in society. Many families, and many multilingual immigrant families among them, cannot afford Internet or they access it only though a mobile phone,” explains Ortega.

“There are some discussions now about whether we could make Internet access a regular utility, like running water.”

New thoughts

Portrait of linguistics professor Lourdes Ortega,
“When we try to understand multilingualism and multilingual people, race always matters,” says Lourdes Ortega. (Photo: private)

Ortega is a well-known linguist with broad experience from research on foreign language learning. The past years she has also applied insights of social justice to her research.

She believes that Covid-19 has demonstrated a need for new insights, also among researchers within her own field.

“When we try to understand multilingualism and multilingual people, race always matters. We have to ask ourselves how to include it in our research,” she says.

In her own research, Ortega has been asking herself how to make research programs less race-blind or race-muted, and more anti-racist.

“I have particularly cared about these issues since 2016 and the several world events that negatively impacted the life of minoritized multilinguals, for example, the Brexit and the U.S. elections. I cared even more about it since early 2020 as the global pandemic put a spotlight on digital, health, and racial inequities.”

Prejudice from a young age

In a study from 2019, Sofia Chaparro at the University of Colorado – Denver demonstrated how class- and race-related prejudice could affect multilingual children. She wrote about two seven-year-old girls in a bilingual learning proogram, Zoe and Larissa.

Zoe is from a White, middle-class family background, while Larissa is from an immigrant, working-class, single-mom family background. At home, Zoe speaks English and Larissa speaks Spanish. In their dual-language school, both languages are used to learn school subjects.

Larissa’s mother tongue is Spanish; however, English-speaking Zoe takes on a helping role towards her, also during Spanish lessons. At times, the teacher seems to support this.

When both girls pepper their dominant language with as much of the new language as they can, the teacher approves of Zoe’s behavior and thinks she is experimenting with her new Spanish. However, she worries about Larissa getting confused with the two languages and fears this may be the beginning of her falling behind academically.

A racialized lens

According to Ortega, Chaparro’s study adresses the theory of “raciolinguistics” prominently discussed by Nelson Flores at The University of Pennsylvania, or the claim that language shapes our ideas about race, and race our ideas about language. The two social categories are co-naturalized and often used as a proxy of each other for discrimination and oppression, she explains.  

“The study by Sofia Chaparro and plenty of other studies show that, as Flores argues, certain children are framed as deficient in their ways with language, regardless of what they really actually do with language, because they are being heard and seen through a racialized lens that says those kinds of children just don't speak appropriately,” Ortega claims.

Both children and adults experience that what matters is not only how you talk, but also how you look.

“This leads to many multilinguals feeling less confident. If you have lived in a country for 30 years and still get asked where you are from, it is easy to feel that you do not belong.”

Zoe and Larissa

Ortega worries that Covid-19 strengthens existing differences between groups and that multilinguals are particularly affected.

For instance, one could imagine how Zoe and Larissa – the two girls from Chaparro’s study – would experience homeschooling in completely different ways, she explains.

“Zoe’s parents hopefully have the option to telework. They may have good computers and a good internet connection. They probably also have the digital skills required to help her,” says Ortega.

Larissa would find herself in another situation, with three siblings and a single mom whose English knowledge is limited. Participating in school from home may also be difficult, if her family has limited Internet connection and lower digital skills.

“The two girls are going to have a huge difference in how much access, comfort, and support they can have from home to do online schooling in these pandemic times. This will affect their learning.”

Image may contain: Child, Learning, Homework, Writing instrument accessory, Student.
Both children and adults experience that what matters is not only how you talk, but also how you look. (Illustration photo: Colourbox)

Young translators

There is also a risk that, despite her young age, Larissa now needs to spend time learning about Covid-19 and translating health information for her mom, a common experience among minority children that researchers like Belem López at the University of Texas – Austin are keenly investigating.

Both the ability to access information about Covid-19 and the family's income level will modulate how vulnerable to infection Larissa, her mom, and her three younger siblings are, Ortega adds.

“These injustices are made all the more complex because of linguistic injustice. If researchers of multilingualism are to contribute to a solution of these kinds of challenges in pandemic times, our research would have to change.”

For instance, researchers could investigate how educators of online courses could ensure rich learning of not just the specific subject but also more widely critical digital literacy, she suggests. 

“The pandemic is a crisis of colossal proportions and of an unprecedented global scope. Not only in the USA but everywhere in the world there are many multilingual adults and children facing injustices related to digital, health, and race inequities,” Ortega stresses.

The Einar Haugen Lecture 2020: “Language Learning in a Post-COVID World,” will be delivered on September 23, 15:15-17:00 (CET). 

Sign up to the event on Facebook.

By Silje Pileberg
Published Sep. 10, 2020 4:35 PM - Last modified Sep. 14, 2020 2:51 PM